A Brief History of Skateboarding

From an Obscure California Activity to the Mainstream

Young boy skateboarding
Carol Yepes/Getty Images

Skateboarding first showed up in California in the 1950s, when surfers got the idea of trying to surf the streets. No one really knows who made the first board—it seems that several people came up with similar ideas at the same time. Several people have claimed to have invented the skateboard first, but nothing can be proved, and skateboarding remains a strange spontaneous creation.

The First Skateboarders

These first skateboarders started with wooden boxes or boards with roller skate wheels slapped on the bottom. As you might imagine, a lot of people got hurt in skateboarding's early years. The boxes turned into planks, and eventually companies started producing decks of pressed layers of wood—similar to the skateboard decks of today. During this time, skateboarding was seen as something to do for fun after surfing.

Skateboarding Gets Popular

In 1963, skateboarding was at a peak of popularity, and companies like Jack's, Hobie and Makaha started holding skateboarding competitions. At this time, skateboarding was mostly either downhill slalom or freestyle. Torger Johnson, Woody Woodward and Danny Berer were well-known skateboarders at this time, but what they did looked almost completely different from what skateboarding looks like today. Their style of skateboarding, called "freestyle," is more like dancing ballet or ice skating with a skateboard.


Then, in 1965, skateboarding's popularity suddenly crashed. Most people assumed that skateboarding was a fad that had died out, like the hula hoop. Skateboard companies folded, and people who wanted to skate had to make their own skateboards again from scratch.

But people still skated, even though parts were hard to find and boards were homemade. Skaters were using clay wheels for their boards, which was extremely dangerous and hard to control. But then in 1972, Frank Nasworthy invented urethane skateboard wheels, which are similar to what most skaters use today. His company was called Cadillac Wheels, and the invention sparked new interest in skateboarding among surfers and other young people.

Skateboarding Evolution

In the spring of 1975, skateboarding took an evolutionary boost toward the sport that we see today. In Del Mar, California, a slalom and freestyle contest was held at the Ocean Festival. That day, the Zephyr team showed the world what skateboarding could be. They rode their boards like no one had in the public eye, low and smooth, and skateboarding was taken from being a hobby to something serious and exciting The Zephyr team had many members, but the most famous are Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta.

But that was only the first big jump in the evolution of skateboarding.The Zephyr team and all the skaters who wanted to be like them made skateboarding's image even edgier and added a strong anti-establishment sentiment that still remains in skateboarding today.

In 1978, only a few years into the popularity of this new style of low-to-the-ground skateboarding, Alan Gelfand (nicknamed "Ollie") invented a maneuver that gave skateboarding another revolutionary jump. His style was to slam his back foot down on the tail of his board and jump, thereby popping himself and the board into the air. The ollie was born, a trick that completely revolutionized skateboarding—most tricks today are based in performing an ollie. The trick still bears his name, and Gelfand was inducted into the skateboard hall of fame in 2002.

Second Crash

As the '70s closed, skateboarding faced its second crash in popularity. Public skate parks had been built, but with skateboarding being such a dangerous activity, insurance rates got out of control. This, combined with fewer people coming to skateparks, forced many to close.

But skaters kept skating. Through the '80s skateboarders started to built their own ramps at home and to skate whatever else they could find. Skateboarding began to be more of an underground movement, with skaters continuing to ride, but they made the whole world into their skatepark.

During the '80s, smaller skateboard companies owned by skateboarders started cropping up. This enabled each company to be creative and do whatever it wanted, and new styles and shapes of boards were tried.

By the early '90s, skateboarding had moved nearly entirely to a street sport. It's popularity waxed and waned, and during an upswing in the '90s it came with a more raw, edgy and dangerous attitude. This coincides with the rise of more angry punk music and a general mood of discontent. The image of the poor, angry skater punk came to the surface loud and proud. Interestingly, this only helped to fuel skateboarding's popularity.

Extreme Games

In 1995, ESPN held its first Extreme Games in Rhode Island. These first X Games were a huge success and helped pull skateboarding closer to the mainstream and closer to being accepted by the general population. In 1997 the first Winter X Games were held, and "Extreme Sports" were classified. 

Into the Mainstream

Since 2000, attention in the media and products like skateboarding video games, children's skateboards and commercialization have all pulled skateboarding more and more into the mainstream. With more money being put into skateboarding, there are more skateparks, better skateboards and more skateboarding companies to keep innovating and inventing new things.

One benefit of skateboarding is that it is a very individual activity. There is no right or wrong way to skate. Skateboarding still hasn't stopped evolving, and skaters are coming up with new tricks all the time. Boards are also continuing to evolve as companies try to make them lighter and stronger or improve their performance. Skateboarding has always been about personal discovery and pushing yourself to the limit, but where will skateboarding go from here? Wherever skaters continue to take it.